There’s a knack to quenelles
One of the reasons I like to cook is because I seem to have a knack for many of the manual skills involved in the kitchen. Most of the time I am unaware of my dexterous aptitudes (I can sharpen knives and chop onions in my sleep) but occasionally I am forced to stop and concentrate, perhaps when filleting a John Dory, or boning a turkey, or… when forming quenelles.
Quenelles are a little tricky, even for experienced cooks. Consider the contestant on a television cookery competition who appeared to have drawn the easiest lot: a simple dish finished with a quenelle. Unfortunately, this contestant lost the knack for quenelles (and later their place in the competition). The hopes of fame scuppered on a quenelle.
I can sympathise; who ever thought it was a good idea to mould creamy amalgams between two spoons… Why not use an ice cream scoop! Well, as it happens, ice cream scoops are only a little easier than two spoons – and still require a certain knack.
I am startled when I observe others failing at simple skills, such as cutting bread. How is it possible not to cut a cross-section into a three-dimensional rectangle that is perpendicular to the sides and parallel to the ends? I wince seeing others struggle with ordinary manipulations such as peeling an apple. It can’t be that difficult to remove the peel off without taking most of the fruit as well. Can it?
Some knacks need special equipment. Knives are a case in point. The remedy for most poor chopping skills is to buy a good quality sharp knife. Similarly, there is no point scoffing at the inability to make nice rose petal swirls on top of a cup cake unless the consistency of the icing has been professionally mastered and a suitable piping bag has been fitted with a Wilton No. 103 flower petal decorating tip. A rotating base is also useful.
Many knacks are skills learned from years of practice. I once watched a chef cutting hundreds of chickens into portions. There was no fiddling about trying to find a joint; the knife knew exactly where to go, and in a few quick strokes, the chef dissembled the chicken into neat even pieces. The only way to work through that amount of chicken was to quickly get the knack and then turn it into a repetitive skill.
Another time, I bought some whole fish and asked the fishmonger to fillet them: swish, flick, whoosh, chop – perfect fillets in seconds. I asked if he could tell me his secret. He took one of my fish and started filleting: at a critical stage, he said, “you have to ‘feel’ for the rib bones and then just ‘finesse’ your knife over the edge.” Sounded like a knack to me – but I suppose after a thousand fillets those delicate rib bones become as rigid as steel pins.
Kitchen skills are sometimes seen on television, although I suspect that most trained chefs – and proficient home cooks – keep these skills to themselves. They can be a double-edged sword…
I learned how to cut a mango into a cubed-hedgehog shape created from an inverted de-seeded half of mango, however, once, when I demonstrated this, I was accused of being a show off. The comment may have been ironic, but I now choose my mango-cutting moments carefully. I experienced similar chagrin once in a cafe. I unwittingly peeled an orange so well that I was able to re-form the single spiral of peel into a seamless globe, looking otherwise like an ordinary – and complete – orange. I knew of the pitfalls of showing off, however, I still wondered if the waitress might be impressed when clearing my plate. With a jolt, she clutched the plate, collapsing my faux orange, and without blinking, slid the lot straight into the bin. Served me right…
I do sometimes wonder if my kitchen knacks are undervalued. Maybe – just maybe – they might be recognised… Would people come from far and wide? Would they gasp in awe: “Come ye, come ye… watch in wonderment as the magnificent Mr WDC fries an egg over-easy without breaking or overcooking the yolk! Be amazed as he de-stones an avocado whilst keeping his fingers intact! And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, yes, let’s hear it, as he scoops the roundest ice cream balls the world has ever seen!”
Hmmm. Probably not. I guess I will go back quietly to shaping my quenelles…